Edna Pontellier sets out to challenge established norms in ‘The Awakening.’ In the 1800s, women seldom acknowledged or acted on their sexual needs. Also, their identities were intertwined with those of their husbands and children. Kate Chopin portrays Edna as a rebellious heroine. She consequently questioned female roles and sought to seek her identity. The novel’s setting is key to Edna Pontellier’s journey of self-discovery at a time when women suffered under men in a patriarchal society.
The author uses the Victorian era setting to highlight the established female roles in society. Edna struggles with the societal expectation that she must be a mother and a wife. The author uses sleep as a metaphor to indicate repression. At this point in the story, Edna is more accepting of her roles as defined by society. She is a loyal wife and mother, tending to her husband’s and children’s needs. At the start of the story, Edna is unaware of her ambitions and is comfortable in her union with her husband (Rahman 7). Marital life was full of responsibilities, and there was no room for passion. Edna’s encounters with residents of Grand Isle remind her of sexual exploits and a yearning for music she had forgotten. As she mingles, the desire to indulge her curiosity is overpowering. Her eyes are opened, and her perspective changes as she shuns tradition and embraces her true self. The author does not present Edna’s aversion to tradition as a heroic act, and neither does she categorize Edna’s actions as shameful. There is selfishness in the manner Edna carries herself as she seeks freedom. This is why Edna was drawn to Reisz. Reisz represented what Edna wanted to become. Unlike Reisz, Edna had bought into the idea that women were meant to get married and have children. Reisz expressed what society thought of women without husbands. She was shunned by all who considered her unusual. Resz’s independence drew Edna to her. The other women did not seem to notice or desire this way of life. Perhaps they were afraid of the consequences associated with going against expectations.
The seashore as a setting is relevant in Edna’s story because the ocean represents freedom. Edna’s desire to learn swimming highlights her search for freedom. Swimming is an arduous task representing Edna’s confidence and strength. By learning to swim, she liberates herself. The association of liberty with the ocean stems from the fact that oceans spread out as far as the eye can see. Oceans are, for the most part, free form human control. Swimming allows Edna to feel a sense of power that she had never felt before (Rahman 5). Also, she feels a sense of personal accomplishment. However, despite learning how to swim, Edna feels fearful. She ventures out into the ocean but is wary of the fact that the shore is getting further away. She feels the loss of security and begins to panic. Edna is terrified of what lies beyond the border of what is known. Her search for freedom and independence leads her to unchartered territory, a fact the author makes abundantly clear in the novel. Edna represents women in a society willing to do anything to be treated as individuals with desires and wishes of their own.
As she walks on the beach in the seventh chapter of the book, Edna recounts her childhood and marriage. The author says, “The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude, to lose itself in a maze of inward contemplation” (Chopin 25). She makes several references to the ocean, which, as earlier stated, represents freedom. Edna uses swimming as a metaphor to represent an earlier time of youth and freedom. It is in this phase that she realizes the power associated with individuality. To exercise this power, she moves out of her husband’s house, gaining independence in the process. Edna completes her desire for complete freedom by sending her children to her mother. It is evident that the author believes Edna’s rebellion to be the right course of action. The author likens Edna to a bird trapped in a cage. Edna’s husband considered her a possession, ‘a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage’ (Chopin 44). Edna seems to care for her husband, always wondering if he will return for dinner. At this point in the story, Edna conceals her disapproval of societal values and norms. It is, however, quite evident that she is uncomfortable with the status quo. This discontent arises when she, on occasion, neglects her children and husband. On one occasion, her husband states, “If it was not a mother’s place to look after children, whose on earth was it?” (Chopin 9). Edna’s discontent with the labels and roles society expects women to abide by is evident at this point.
Edna decides to buy a house for herself and the author uses this setting to indicate Edna’s desire to be free. Like Reisz, Edna experiences loneliness. She gains her freedom but is at the same time consumed by loneliness. The setting of her house is essential because it allows Edna to gain independence from the restrictive ways that characterized a society. Even though Edna has chosen to ignore social conventions, she feels trapped by motherhood. Edna craves independence and freedom, and this is evident when she reiterates that ‘she would never sacrifice herself for the children’ (Chopin 175). Edna frees herself from her children by sending them to their grandparents. She undergoes sexual awakening when she engages in a sexual relationship with Alcee Arobin. Edna is in complete control and only meets with her lover when she pleases. The relationship is ideal because Arobin has no intention of marrying Edna. Their relationship is unconventional and frowned upon by society. Unmarried women were rejected and shunned.
The novel’s protagonist is a twenty-eight-year-old woman married to a businessman in New Orleans. Edna finds married life-limiting and dissatisfying and slowly metamorphoses from a loyal wife to a rebellious woman anxious to be free. A series of events allows Edna to gain independence from societal norms. She becomes the mistress of her body and mind. Unfortunately, her independence leads to solitude as everyone else shuns her. The ocean in the story represents the freedom she seeks. It is boundless, and this scares her. The fear of the unknown causes some doubt as she re-evaluates her choices. Edna meets her tragic end at the same place her awakening took place. The author maintains an ambiguity that leaves Edna’s eventual suicide open to interpretation. One might choose to look at it as a heroic act in which Edna rebelled for the last time or as a cowardly act resulting from unbearable societal pressure. Her actions represent a woman’s struggle in a patriarchal society.
Chopin, Kate.The Awakening And Selected Stories. New York: Penguin Classics. 1986.
Rahman, Dedi. An Analysis of The Feminist Characters in Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” Journal of English Educators Society, vol. 2, 2017, pp1-15.